Gibbes Okay Despite Director’s Departure

Todd Smith shocked everyone last week when he resigned as executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art.

The sudden and unexpected decision became effective Tuesday. Until June 30, Smith will serve as director of special projects while an interim replacement is found and a new director search is launched. An official press release said what we already knew: Smith was resigning. It didn’t elaborate much further except to list his accomplishments.

Since March 2006, Smith led an effort to rebrand the museum’s identity, he shepherded its re-accreditation with the American Association of Museums (a long, complicated process), and he brought back fiscal discipline.

Smith was hired to usher the Gibbes into the thick of the 21st century. That meant overseeing a new brand, an assertive outreach program, a renewed network of development, imaginative and culturally relevant exhibitions, and a collection refreshed by new work.

That also meant building a new facility to replace or augment the current Gibbes Museum. Building, Smith told me in an interview last January, was a major reason he took the job. The board was eager to expand and grow. He was ready to build. It was a good match all around. Now he’s leaving. Why?

The official line did little to stop speculation (including my own) that Smith was pushed out. My hunch was that he’d locked horns with the wrong board member over how, when, and how much it would take to build a new museum. I wasn’t alone. Others were skeptical, too.

The Post and Courier surmised in a March 25 report that Smith was fired, either because he presented too much contemporary art or because he didn’t present enough (the article seems to contradict itself in guessing that the reasons were both). Other rumors spread that Smith wasn’t doing the job he was hired to do.

These are barely plausible theories. By all accounts, Smith and the board agreed, for the most part, on the role of contemporary art. As for job performance, most measures indicate at least modest gains — membership grew by 7.5 percent and large donations by 6 percent during his brief tenure. What bothered me was that Smith was the second executive director in six years to step down. It was starting to look like an institutionally unhealthy pattern.

But after several conversations with board members, museum staffers, and former employees (most of whom were granted anonymity because they did not want to be identified commenting on his imminent departure), it appears there is little more behind Smith’s resignation than a change of heart.

It appears to be a personal decision with ultimately little bearing on the Gibbes.

“Todd was at a transition in life,” said Tom White, president of the board of directors, who played a significant role in hiring Smith. “At this point, he wants to get his dissertation done to establish his future credentials. He’s 42. Now is the time in his life to get that done.” (Smith’s dissertation is on Washington Allston, an 18th- and early 19th-century American romantic painter and a key figure in the Gibbes’ collection. Smith is working on an exhibit of Allston’s work.)

Repeatedly in interviews, Smith was described as friendly, warm, charming, and easy to work with. His vision of a museum as a civic forum that actively engages curious audiences was one that resonated with staffers, directors, and forward-thinking board members. One person expressed appreciation for Smith’s leadership style: He didn’t micro-manage but instead empowered employees to use their own talents, creativity, and problem-solving skills.

One source said Smith reaffirmed the museum’s core mission to be all about access and public interaction. Another said there was indeed anxiety about an uncertain future among staffers but that they still felt allegiance to principles Smith helped re-establish. Another source said there is awareness among board directors of the need for change. The questions now are how and when. Finding the answers to these questions, this source said, will require a process of institutional self-discovery that could take a very long time.

“Todd did great things for the Gibbes,” White told me. “He was extremely astute about controlling finances, he clarified exhibition policies, and he kept us committed to the community, to preserving the past and looking to the future.”

As for the Gibbes, it seems to be moving in the right direction. The obvious next step is finding a new director who can provide the leadership needed to achieve future amibitions that seem to include supplementing the permanent collection with contemporary art and laying the foundation for the construction of a badly needed new building.

But don’t hold your breath. How to get all that done won’t be outlined until a new director has devised a new three-to-five-year business strategy. That could take months, most likely longer, to realize, as the director search has yet to get underway.

“The board needs a strong director,” White said. “We don’t want to impose a strategic plan on a new director. We’d rather have that person bring a vision to the table. We’ll go through a period of remission, so to speak, until we find the right person to take care of the business at hand.” —John Stoehr